Historically, debts which tied workers to the landowners in a feudalistic type of relationship marked power relations on the large haciendas. In Ecuador, the system of sharecropping to which highland peasants were subjected was known as the huasipungo. In a land-labor exchange, the peasants or tenant farmers (called huasipungueros) worked on hacienda land three to six days a week in exchange for small subsistence plots (called huasipungos) usually one to four hectares in size, access to pasture land for a small number of animals, and a meager cash wage. This economic context strongly influenced the nature and development of Indigenous ethnicity in Cayambe and throughout Ecuador. Furthermore, this history of land tenure and changes in rural economies forms an important basis for understanding and interpreting protest actions. (abstract from Land Tenure Patterns and the Huasipungo in Cayambe, Ecuador, by Marc Becker, Social Science History Association, Chicago, November 19-22, 1998.)
Agrarian Reform and Colonization Law of 1964
The Agrarian Reform Measure of 1964 outlawed the huasipungo, the land-tenure/debt peonage system embedded in hacienda and latifundista agriculture. However, there was no agent of execution, no class organized to effect in the field the changes enacted in the junta. Agrarian reform withered and died.
In the years following the reform of 1964, less than 15% of the arable land and less than 20% of the rural population had been affected by reform programs. At the end of the 1970s, Ecuador contained 350,000 farms of an area of 5 hectares or less, and 150,000 of 1 hectare or less.
Agrarian Reform Law of 1973. This law was intended to strengthen the ineffective 1964 law. In 1976, under pressure from landowners, article 25 pertaining to expropriation of parcels not cultivated at 80% or above was made inactive.
Colonization Law of the Amazon Region of 1977. This measure promoted migration from the Sierra Region into the Orient, easing demographic pressure but contributing to deforestation and pollution of Amazonia
In 1992 CONAIE organized a march of indigenous peoples to Quito in order to protest government policies and celebrate indigenous culture on the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. As a result of the strong protests, the Ecuadorian government was forced into a discussion with the indigenous Ecuadorians. The talks led to the government’s granting of over 16,000 square kilometers of land to indigenous organizations, one of the largest land rights concessions in the history of Latin America. While still facing resistance from the government, CONAIE was becoming recognized as an important force that would undoubtedly play a major role in the future of the country.
In 1994another massive mobilization was realized in response to a new neo-liberal Agrarian Reform Law and a World Bank loan granted in order to privatize the oil sector. The oil deal threatened physical damage indigenous groups (earlier oil exploration had led to contamination of water and environmental degradation) in the Amazon and loss of their land holdings. The Agrarian Reform Law was an attempt to sell communally held land to stimulate competition and productivity, reduce and consolidate indigenous land holdings, and privatize the water system, all of which represented great threats to indigenous livelihood. Because of the ferocity of the uprising and criticism of the government led by CONAIE, the land reform and water privatization basically disappeared and although the oil privatization passed, indigenous groups gained some protection. In short, however, in 1994 the process of globalization was well underway and it constituted immense danger for all indigenous groups in Ecuador because of the potential for loss of land, sovereignty, and the destruction of their natural habitats. CONAIE had achieved much, but still lacked that vital connection to mainstream politics that held the key to protecting indigenous communities.